Washington: The Senate has blocked a bill to end bulk collection of Americans' phone records by the National Security Agency, dealing a blow to President Barack Obama's primary proposal to rein in domestic surveillance.
The 58-42 vote yesterday was two short of the 60 needed to proceed with debate under Senate procedural rules. Voting was largely along party lines, with most Democrats supporting the bill and most Republicans voting against it. The Republican-controlled House had previously passed its own NSA bill.
The legislation would have ended the NSA's collection of domestic calling records, instead requiring the agency to obtain a court order each time it wanted to analyse the records in terrorism cases, and query records held by the telephone companies. In many cases the companies store the records for 18 months.
The revelation that the spying agency had been collecting and storing domestic phone records since shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, was among the most significant by Edward Snowden, a former agency network administrator who turned over secret NSA documents to journalists. The agency collects only so-called metadata numbers called, not names and not the content of conversations. But the spectre of the intelligence agency holding domestic calling records was deeply disquieting to many Americans.
The bill had drawn support from technology companies and civil liberties activists. Its failure means there has been little in the way of policy changes as a result of Snowden's disclosures.
Pressured to act, Obama in January proposed curbing the NSA's authority and the House in May passed a bill to do so. While the measure was pending, the NSA continued to collect American landline calling records, though the program does not cover most mobile phone records.
The law authorising the bulk collection, a provision of the post-9/11 USA Patriot Act, will expire in June 2015. That means Congress would have to pass legislation re-authorising the program for it to continue.
For that reason, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, abandoned her previous opposition to the bill. "If we do not pass the bill, we will lose this program," Feinstein said on the Senate floor.
"This bill increases trust and confidence and credibility of our intelligence system," said Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal.